Ask What Your Data Can Do For Your Country (Evolution of the Earth Sciences in the 20th Century Part 2) / by Adeene Denton

The great wars of the first half of the twentieth century cemented the strength of the insalubrious collaboration between scientists and the military, particularly for the United States.  As we covered last time, the escalation of warfare with World War I enlisted chemists to design ever more effective mustard gas and geologists to ensure proper placement of trench lines and mines.  And yet the relationship grew deeper still: the Second World War saw the U.S. military conscripting even more scientists for assistance as the battle expanded its scope from the battlefields of Europe to the isolated islands of the Pacific.  In the earth sciences, geologists had their military heyday in World War I but the course of war and the development of new technologies shifted the course of military interest towards the oceans. 

World War II was the beginning of a decades-long partnership between the U.S. Navy and civilian oceanographers that would last into the Cold War, completely redefining what the field was capable of and producing some of the defining theories about the earth that we herald today.  And yet, it eventually began to fall apart. Here we’ll examine the how, the why, and more. Let’s jump in, shall we?

  Figure 1:  Scientists using an echo sounder, an instrument for mapping the seafloor (image from Hamblin 2002)

Figure 1: Scientists using an echo sounder, an instrument for mapping the seafloor (image from Hamblin 2002)

A Desperate Navy and the Second World War

World War II brought with it insecurities about the ability of the American military to win the war as it promised.  The Navy in particular was concerned about the advancement of submarine warfare with the combined threat of German submarines in the North Atlantic and the island-to-island fighting in the Pacific, and desperately needed more knowledge of ocean processes.  Even worse, at the beginning of the war much of the Navy’s equipment for studying oceanographic processes was horrendously outdated. In the hopes of avoiding potential disaster, Naval researchers reached out to prominent scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography on the West Coast and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on the East Coast, asking them to set their research projects aside in favor of abundant military funding to help with the war effort.  Where geologists during World War I produced comprehensive topographic maps of battlefields, oceanographers in World War II were expected to produce reports on the shorelines and beaches of Europe and describe their “trafficability,” or the ease with which they could be invaded by an Allied force.

As the fractious alliance between geologists and the army foreshadowed, the partnership between the oceanographers and the Navy was an uneasy one; the Navy saw oceanographers as valuable commodities but dismissed their interests in publishing the results of their military-sponsored research in favor of security concerns.  The Navy was focused on research that had immediate application to the warfront, such as passive listening devices to detect submarines and bathymetric maps of the seafloor, or more developed knowledge of seafloor sediment mechanics to aid in shallow-water mine warfare, and guarded the newfound knowledge fiercely.

But despite its desperate desire for oceanographic assistance, the Navy also let its paranoia flag fly. Harald Sverdrup, a genius Norwegian oceanographer from Scripps, repeatedly volunteered his assistance to the Navy over the course of the war but was consistently rebuffed on suspicions of being a Nazi sympathizer (despite Norway having been invaded by the Nazis). Sverdrup’s run-in with the Navy was one early instance of what would become a larger problem – working with the Navy was very beneficial for oceanographers due to the free-flowing funding to work on areas crucial to military needs, but the Navy itself had an enormous amount of power to control who was given clearance to work with them.  While Sverdrup would eventually have a unit of measurement named after him, McCarthy-style fears from both the Navy and some of his colleagues prevented a world-renowned oceanographer from truly aiding the war effort.

  Figure 2:  Oceanographic and military objectives, 1945 (via Oreskes and Ranger, 2000)

Figure 2: Oceanographic and military objectives, 1945 (via Oreskes and Ranger, 2000)

Stuck in the Middle (of a Cold War) with You

After World War II ended and the Cold War began many oceanographers remained with the Navy, partially because they felt obligated to continue doing research with them as a debt owed to their country and partially because naval funding covered the cost of increasingly expensive oceanographic study equipment.  Meanwhile, the transition to the era of nuclear technology was not an easy one for the military, and the Navy in particular was concerned about its relevance in the days of atomic bombs that could be far more threatening than a naval fleet.  This deep-seated fear of irrelevancy resulted in a drastic expansion of military support for the sciences with no matching increase from civilian funding agencies, drawing scientists from many different fields to work for the military despite their differences in perspective. 

The end of the war heightened a desire among U.S. scientists for international collaboration rather than antagonism, but the U.S. military had its watchful eyes on the Soviet Union and deemed the concept of scientific internationalism to be naïve at best and treasonous at worst.  Data collected using Naval vessels was classified, and scientists looking to publish had to wait for military permission (which could take years), much like Sverdrup had waited for clearance a decade before.  This frustrated scientists who, among other things, expected to be able to communicate their data to the rest of the community.

The oceanographers’ fights with the Navy over internalization of oceanographic data did not stop them from working together, however, and the results were undeniably profitable. The discovery of plate tectonics, which completely redefined earth science as a field, came from data collected with naval vessels, repurposed in Maurice Ewing’s exhaustive maps of seafloor depths in the North Atlantic that revealed the mountainous mid-ocean ridges for the first time. 

Ewing, the founder and commander-in-chief of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute, parlayed his relationship with the Navy into domination of his field, and his image (and that of his institute) looms large to this day. Ewing and his scientists had to work around the military to release their data, however, as the Navy refused to declassify it – by releasing maps but not the raw data on which they were based.  It was becoming increasingly clear that the Navy was both a force for progress within oceanography but also a hindrance when it came to sharing data, even to validate groundbreaking theories.

  Figure 3:  Maurice Ewing doing the work of an oceanographer and geophysics. The man redefined the field, and all of us feel his legacy today (via Lamont-Doherty).

Figure 3: Maurice Ewing doing the work of an oceanographer and geophysics. The man redefined the field, and all of us feel his legacy today (via Lamont-Doherty).

Alvin's Chain Reaction: Oceanography Grows a Conscience

At the same time as the discovery of plate tectonics caused a reconstitution of geologic thought, earth scientists were also reconsidering their ideas about what it meant to be a scientist.  J. Tuzo Wilson, one of the prominent figures in confirming mid-ocean ridges as spreading centers, firmly asserted that “science is everybody’s business,” and that scientists, by virtue of being experts, should shape the course of policy in their countries of residence.  No one had really said this before, and the entire community was abuzz with thoughts of civic duty.  Exactly what did scientists owe their country?

Other scientists were more concerned with the state of scientific funding.  Military patronage was continuing to put a strain on the scientific community, as advances in scientific technology led to concerns about who should use it.  Scientists, in conjunction with funding from the military and other sources, were developing genius computers and fantastic machines that could traverse the ocean floor, and the military was eager to take advantage of what it sponsored.  Oceanographer Allyn Vine worked with the Navy to produce a submersible, Alvin, a craft capable of reaching the mid-ocean ridge identified by Ewing – and taking pictures.  Alvin was an incredible opportunity for deep-sea research, and oceanographers clamored to use it to study everything from giant squid to the density variations between deep ocean layers.  However, the Navy, which provided most of the funding for the project, reserved the use of the submersible for military-specific needs, such as inspecting the underwater monitoring arrays that were set up offshore of Bermuda (definitely not for listening to the Soviets) and finding a hydrogen bomb that fell off a U.S. air force bomber and went missing in the Mediterranean (…oops?).

For the first three years of Alvin’s existence it was exclusively a military tool, despite being the brainchild of civilian oceanographers.  The worsening conflict over who could use the technology was an indicator that the strained partnership between scientists and the Navy might become irreparable, as scientists began to vigorously assert their entitlement to their scientific findings and data.  The attempt to move Alvin into civilian hands almost went bankrupt several times, but an agreement was ultimately reached between the Navy and the NSF to jointly assist in funding the project so that it could be used for more academic projects.

The NSF, barely 20 years old, had very little funding to support the ever-increasing number of projects that required its attention, particularly with the concurrent wave of computers being built at every major university in the country.  However, it was willing to fight to keep expensive tools accessible to civilians, and brokered a deal with the Navy to that end.  The Alvin deal was the first of many that gradually broke down the Naval system of patronage that had thus far defined oceanography.  Alvin would go on to discover the fantastic world of deep-sea hydrothermal vents and had a celebrated career as a scientific instrument, but the damage done to the relationship between oceanographers and the military was permanent.

  Figure 4:  Candid shot of Alvin in action.  Since its commission in 1964, Alvin has made over 4,400 dives.

Figure 4: Candid shot of Alvin in action.  Since its commission in 1964, Alvin has made over 4,400 dives.


Where do we go from here? What have we learned so far?

We have the development of formidable government funding sources outside the military as well as the growing desire among scientists to use their roles as arbiters of knowledge to be advocates and advisors on political issues.  Oceanography saw its ascendancy as it partnered with the U.S. military to master the oceans, but the uneven system of patronage that elevated some scientists and institutions above others combined with criticism of the efficacy of doing good science while attached to the military eventually saw the relationship's fall from grace.  It's hard to criticize oceanographers who willingly worked with the Navy in exchange for more funding than they had ever dreamed of.  But the ebb and flow of politics and the very technological developments the Navy had wanted became the dividing line.  

What we've seen here is a new self-awareness of science and scientists as political as well as academic beings. What happens next is the scientists deciding what to do with that. The next part of our story checks in with a part of earth science that you might not expect would wade into Cold War politics: seismology.

Selected References

Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. “The Navy’s ‘Sophisticated’ Pursuit of Science: Undersea Warfare, the Limits of Internationalism, and the Utility of Basic Research, 1945-1956.” Isis, 93.1: March 2002. 1-27.

Oreskes, Naomi. “A Context of Motivation: US Navy Oceanographic Research and the Discovery of Sea-Floor Hydrothermal Vents.” Social Studies of Science 33.5: October 2003. 697-742.

Oreskes, Naomi. “Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth.”  Westview Press: Cambridge. 2001. 1-45.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Rainger, Ronald. “Science and Security Before the Atomic Bomb: The Loyalty Case of Harald U. Sverdrup.” Studies of History and Philosophy of Science 31.3: September 2000. 309-369.

Rainger, Ronald. “Science at the Crossroads: The Navy, Bikini Atoll, and American Oceanography in the 1940s.” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 30.2: 2000. 349-347.

Wilson, J. Tuzo. “Science is Everybody’s Business.” American Scientist 52: September 1964. 274.